At first Egyptians simply wanted Mubarak out. But the more they learn, the more calls for execution grow
An old man, obduracy etched on every feature, lies on a hospital bed in the dock of a courtroom. He wears shades. His hair is well dyed. His hands are folded over the bed-covers and the cuffs of his pyjamas peep discreetly from beneath the sleeves of his dressing gown. His two sons, also on trial, take up bodyguard positions meant to shield him from the cameras.
This is Hosni Mubarak: president of Egypt for 30 years, and deposed and on trial for one. Will this mafia boss image be the last one we have of him?
In the year since his removal the mood of the country has grown more harsh. The symbolic nooses the western media are so fond of showing only started to be hung in Tahrir Square and outside the courtroom months into the revolution. The appetite of the protesters was never for summary justice; they wanted a fair and comprehensive trial and were prepared for it to take time. But how much time? As the trial dragged on we learned more and more about the systematic ruin that the man had been overseeing: our ruin, brought to life before us – the industries dismantled, the ministries bankrupted, the water poisoned, the gold and ancient artefacts spirited away, the foreign debt accumulated and embezzled, the lives wasted.
And while we were absorbing this information we knew that Mubarak continued to live in luxury: first in his beachside hospital prison in Sharm el-Sheikh, and then in what’s reported to be an 11-room suite at the International Medical Centre with phones and plasma screens. A private plane carries him from his gym in the centre to his hospital bed in the dock of the court. Who pays for all this? The armed forces say they do. So how come they can afford to?
People see this against a national situation where activist lawyers have just managed to get a minimum wage law passed. It guarantees a wage that is currently calculated at 1,500 Egyptian pounds (£157), which the government says it can’t pay because it has no money. Instead, it suggests 700 Egyptian pounds – £73 – a month.
And we see it against the fact that the armed forces, headed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) – Mubarak’s boys whom he left in charge of us – have engineered confrontations with the people in which around 200 civilians have been killed and 12,000 court-martialled. No wonder the mood has turned, and in place of the simple “Leave!” we now hear demands for execution.
And yet, in a sense, the trial has become a sideshow, a distraction. It allows Scaf and the current powers to promote the perception that the big crimes that continue to be committed are not theirs, but are organised by, if not Mubarak, then his sons through their still active network.
And in any case the trial is tangential. Of course Mubarak had to be tried for his role in the murder of protesters in January and February 2011, but that was the culmination of a career in which his activities and influence warrant a charge of high treason, of administering the country to benefit interests other than those of its citizens. No wonder the Israelis lamented the loss of their “strategic asset”. No wonder Mubarak spent 20 minutes on 10 February 2011 on the phone to his friend Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli former defence minister, in shock that the Americans were abandoning him after all he’d done for them. But a trial for high treason would have brought in the big interests, the real players. So he is being tried for killing protesters and that way it all remains within the realm of the domestic.
Many people want to move on, to leave the Mubarak era in the past and concentrate on the now and the future. But many people also have lost children, have lost limbs. And they want justice – they want qisas. Qisas (with the stress on the second syllable and a dark “a” as in “father”) is justice that accepts the victim’s need to avenge his or herself. In qisas the judge passes the appropriate sentence but leaves the door open to the victim to show mercy or accept compensation; the punishment is therefore the victim’s prerogative – within the law. That is what the parents of the murdered protesters are demanding.
The mood of the country is that Mubarak deserves and should get the maximum sentence possible. In Egypt that would be execution. But the Scaf, with their devotion to hierarchy, to form, to respect (for armed forces bosses, that is), will find it hard to see the man who for 30 years was their commander-in-chief get the sentence he deserves. Judge Ahmad Rif’at has set the date for his sentencing in early June. Mubarak is 84. Will he survive? And most importantly: what happens to Egypt’s money and Egypt’s falsely incurred debt?
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from Ahdaf Soueif